Weeks passed with no sign of the shuttle. The two men lost track of exactly how long they had been gone. The normal rotation of Ararat was slightly longer than Earth, enough so that a short period of time wasn’t significantly different between the two worlds. By now, they had gone beyond that and knew it.
Tommy mastered the building of traps, and discovered a lot of edible plants on the island. The tubers called Corrigan Yams were a particular favorite of the two men. He had even built a crude shelter for Harley and himself. Harley had managed to maintain much of his physique, though he knew his legs were starting to atrophy.
On the other hand, Tommy was losing all the softness that defined the wealthy of Earth. In its place was the leanness of an athlete.
Which, Tommy realized when he thought about it, he kind of was. His days were spent around the jungle, hunting food. Corrigan Yams, Pendergast fruit, and Ararat wild corn provided the bulk of their diet, along with meat from the traps, which had to be checked daily. He was constantly in motion, and every action he took was directed toward the goal of survival.
Night was a different matter entirely.
For the first few days, they heard nothing from the sabercat. They started to believe it had died from its wounds. After the first week, a nerve-wracking roar pierced the night. According to the survival guide Harley had downloaded, sabercats slept most of the day, coming out in late afternoon.
The next night, piercing yellow eyes moved around the edge of their campsite. The constant threat made the two men uneasy.
Their visitor had been with them every night since. That meant Tommy had to wrap up his food-gathering by early afternoon and be back in camp before the sabercat could return. For whatever reason, it seemed to have made this personal.
Harley wasn’t lying around while Tommy worked. He got Tommy to secure some vines that contained fibers similar to Earth’s nettle plants. He turned these fibers into cordage, which he then used to make bags in a process called twinning, which Tommy used to hold the food he gathered.
They were exhausted. It was hard to sleep knowing that the fire beside you seemed to be the only thing keeping a massive predator at bay. They dozed enough to keep functioning, and Harley tried sleeping during the day so he could remain alert at night, letting Tommy sleep. The only problem was that Tommy couldn’t sleep. The growls emanating from the darkness made it impossible.
"That’s fuckin’ it," Tommy said one night.
"We’ve got food for a few days. I’m taking this bitch down tomorrow," he said.
Tommy spent the next day digging a deep pit and placing sharpened stakes in the bottom. He then covered it with a mat of brush. By the afternoon, he was inside the safe realm of the fire.
As darkness covered the sky, Tommy was filled with hope. They were both sick of being prey. It was time for that to end.
The yellow eyes returned, watching their every move. Slowly, they circled the camp, yet seemed to skip the section of jungle containing the pit.
For several nights, they hoped for the sabercat to stumble into the trap, but nothing. Each morning, Tommy would check the trap, seeing it undisturbed. He was positive that he had set the trap in the path the ‘cat usually followed, but nothing.
Tommy then tried baiting the trap with small game he had trapped earlier in the day. Still nothing.
"That damn ‘cat’s smarter than we are," Harley said.
Tommy nodded. He didn’t like it, but it sure as hell seemed like the other man was right.
"I guess we’re just stuck having to deal with it," Tommy said.
Harley nodded.
The rains came the next morning. The daylight filtered through the dense clouds, sending the sabercat back to its lair to sleep.
Tommy shuffled firewood under their shelter while cursing the rain. Once that was accomplished, he told Harley he was going to check the traps.
He took off, running through the fat drops. He ran almost everywhere these days, his bare feet splashing in the forming puddles. With practiced ease, he darted through the trees. His feet stepped around the vines as if they were a schoolyard obstacle course he had run his whole life.
One by one, he checked his traps. Some were undisturbed. Others sprung but no animals within. A handful yielded the beautiful bounty of fresh meat.
As Tommy put the last animal in the bag, a growl erupted behind him. It was coldly familiar. He closed his eyes, praying he was wrong. He opened his eyes and turned around.
Familiar yellow eyes, filled with fury, greeted him.
"Shit," he muttered.
The sabercat snarled, the rain dripping off of its lip.
Tommy inched his knife out of its sheath.
A rumbling growl echoed amidst the surrounding trees.
"All right, you yellow-eyed bastard. Let’s go," Tommy whispered.
The sabercat roared. Its eyes locked onto Tommy. He returned the gaze as adrenaline flooded his system.
The ‘cat jumped at him. Tommy raised his left hand and grabbed the sabercat’s upper lip. The knife flew out of his hand. He fought the ‘cat, using all his strength to keep its mouth away from him as he looked for the knife.
He saw it to his right. He reached out, his fingers stretching. The knife was just centimeters out of reach.
The cat fought, trying to grab Tommy with its razor sharp teeth. Tommy stretched again and again, getting a bit closer with each effort. Finally, he felt the cool handle under his fingers. He dug at the handle until it was close enough to grab. Tommy snatched up and slammed it into the cat’s throat.
The two bodies collapsed into a multicolored mass.
Tommy looked down on the dead sabercat. The mostly healed wounds on its right side made it clear that it was the same cat. He eyed the carcass with an intensity he had never possessed before. His left hand bled where he had grabbed teeth rather than just the lip, but he didn’t care. Tommy looked down and saw a couple of wide gashes on his chest leaking blood as well. He didn’t realize the ‘cat had even scratched him. He felt it again, that feeling he had the night he built the first fire.
As he dragged the dead cat back to camp, the last droplets of rain were rattled loose from the surrounding leaves by a tremendous engine roar overhead.
"About time," Harley said.
Tommy nodded. He didn’t feel like speaking. He was scared that uttering words would wake him from this dream.
Harley kept his eyes on the trail from the landing pad. Tommy remained focused on the cat.
"Hey there, little brother. Still alive?" A deep voice called from the other side of a bend in the trail.
"We’re here," he answered, shifting his eyes toward the trail.
Marco Riley was as tall as Harley, but with a rounded belly and perfect hair. He smiled at the two men. "That’s all the hello I get? I come halfway across the universe, and not even a ‘Hey Marco, great to see you’?"
"What was the hold up?" Tommy asked, his voice emotionless.
Marco shrugged. "The gate was down. Trident wasn’t maintaining it. Mother crucified them for it, too."
"I take it she won?"
Marco smiled. "Was there any doubt?" He turned his attention to Harley. "Are you going to just sit there? Get your worthless ass up and get Tommy packed."
Tommy covered the dozen meters between him and his brother in a heartbeat. He grabbed Marco’s shirt and slammed him against the closest tree.
"What’s your problem?" Marco bleated, his eyes wide with fear and surprise.
"Don’t talk to him like that, you got me?"
"What? It’s his job," Marco said.
Tommy looked back at Harley. "He can’t walk, you moron. Hurt his spine."
"How was I supposed to know?"
"You weren’t," Tommy said, letting go of his brother. "But he’s been the only one with me this whole time. Treat him with some respect."
"Whatever," Marco said, then pulled out a phone and called for help with loading.
The crew of the ship arrived soon with a stretcher. After carefully loading Harley up, they assured Tommy that the ship’s doctor could begin treatment. Tommy walked next to the stretcher as a crew loaded up whatever was salvageable for the return trip to Earth.
They were going home at last, but Tommy realized that part of him had died on Ararat. When he thought about the part of him being left behind, he didn’t feel even a hint of remorse.
Check out the next piece in this release, The Cockfight by Robert Arrington!